Battle of the Terms- Food Allergy versus Food Intolerance versus Food Preference

Battle of the Terms- Food Allergy versus Food Intolerance versus Food Preference

Welcome to Battle of the Terms- where we identify commonly used terms in everyday life and put them together to explain which one means what and how they apply to everyone.

In this edition we discuss three common terms used when ordering, purchasing and eating food, that are used sometimes in similar manners but all have very different meanings. And in some places they overlap as a choice of words (when they shouldn't).


Round 1- CAUSE

  • Food Allergy- An Allergy occurs when the body's immune system reacts to a foreign substance it identifies as an allergen that is harmful. These substances (also referred to as allergic triggers) are harmless to most people, however for an allergic person it affects their immune system, and reacts by producing antibodies (immunoglobulins) to fight the foreign substances. This leads to symptoms that can be mild to serious and life-threatening.
  • Food Intolerance- An Intolerance is a non-immune related reaction from a certain substance, that instead of affecting a person's immune system it affects their digestive system. Unlike allergies, intolerances can be distressing, but are not life-threatening.
  • Food Preference- A food preference is a learned behaviour that leads to a habitual choice due to a psychological response that causes a person to avoid a food substance (due to how they feel about it). Some food preferences are linked to five tastes that are noticed by our taste buds: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury), which causes the context and consequences of avoiding and eating certain foods.

Round 2- SOURCE

  • Food Allergy- Having a food allergy may be due to genetics, the environment, medical conditions, hormones and other such factors. 
  • Food Intolerance- Having a food intolerance may be due to digestive disorders, diseases, non-food sensitivities and other such factors.
  • Food Preference- Having a food preference can come from various sources such as age, culture, religion, ethics, media (Television, advertising, games, etc), family, friends, personal experiences, workplaces, taste buds and other such factors.


  • Food Allergy- An Allergic reaction can occur at any time from when the allergic substances are consumed, inhaled, injected or made contact with.
  • Food Intolerance- An Intolerance reaction mainly occurs from when the intolerant substances are consumed.
  • Food Preference- A preference occurs from any manner in which a person comes across a substance they wish to avoid.


  • Food Allergy- The most common food allergens are wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, eggs, milk (dairy), finned fish (fish), soy (soya), sesame seeds and lupin. These are just some of the many food allergies. 
  • Food Intolerance- Common food intolerances include gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, dairy intolerance, MSG intolerance, salicylates intolerance and caffeine intolerance. There are just some of the food intolerances. 
  • Food Preference- A food preference can be a complete dietary preference such as choosing foods that are vegan, vegetarian, kosher, halal, paleo, keto, low-carb, etc or a specific dietary preference such as an avoidance of onions, brussel sprouts, red meat, chills, etc.


  • Food Allergy- Along with the allergen themselves you may see terms such as "No" and "Free" used. For example for Peanut Allergies, you may notice "Peanut Free" and/or "No Peanuts". Terms such as "Allergy Friendly" may also be present.
  • Food Intolerance- Similar to Allergies, you may see terms as "No" and "Free" used. Gluten Intolerances for instance, you may notice "Gluten Free" and/or "No Gluten".
  • Food Preference- Preferences are case by case and if it is a complete dietary preference, then the diets will be listed (such as Vegan), and if it is a special dietary preference then it would be a case of asking or checking the ingredient list. 

Round 6- Final Round- DINING SAFELY

  • Food Allergy- While dining venues are aware and understanding of allergies, not all may be aware of the specifics of the allergens and/or cater for all allergies. In some cases they may not be able to service you due to factors such as the way they prepare meals, to the cuisine they offer (and that's okay). Presenting an Allergy Card is a beneficial way to advise the venue and either dine with them (where they carefully cater for your allergy) or go elsewhere to a place that does. 
  • Food Intolerance- Similar to Allergies, while dining venues are aware and understanding of intolerances, not may be aware of the specifics of the intolerances, or cater for all intolerances (and that's okay). Using an Intolerance Card that showcases your intolerance is an effective way to dine safely where they cater for your intolerances or go elsewhere to a place that does.
  • Food Preference- Preferences follow a similar pattern to allergies and intolerances, where they might not always be catered for by the dining venue. This may be as the venue might not see it as a health requirement (such as allergies or intolerances) to change the meal, or it might not be something the venue can cater for (based on their menu), which may lead to an unhappy experience. It's best to check ahead of time before dining to know if you can dine there or need to go elsewhere. 



Navigating allergies, intolerances and preferences is a challenge that may be impacted based on multiple factors from where you live, what you do, who you spend time with, etc.

It's best with any food related matters than cause any sorts of reactions to speak to qualified medical practitioners to guide you on the best course of action for you.

You will always be the winner from this as you will be able to practice Personal Contingency Actions that will help you enjoy and experience food in a positive manner. Read more about Personal Contingency Actions here.

We hope this article clears up a few questions for you, but remember if you're not sure always check, and if you can't check then don't go ahead with eating the food.

The information provided on Allergy Life Australia is to generally educate and inform you about living with allergies, intolerances and conditions, and is not intended as medical instruction or as a substitute for diagnosis, examination and advice by a qualified health care provider.



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